The Crisis Management committee of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod convened Monday 25 July to discuss the successive attacks waged by Muslim extremists against Copts in several provinces in Egypt, notably Minya and Beni Sweif, and which left one man dead, several injured, and Coptic homes and property damaged and burned. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/the-copts-painand-bitterness/16916/]
Visiting Minya and Beni Sweif
Anba Pimen, head of the crisis management committee; and Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod, presided over the meeting. Discussions centred around the expected fallout of the attacks against Copts whose only crime was that they were subjects of rumours which Muslim extremists used as pretexts to wage attacks against them. The attacks turned into collective punishment of the Coptic communities in the villages of al-Karm, Koum al-Loufi, Abu-Yacoub and Tahna al-Gabal in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo; and Saft al-Kharsa in Beni Sweif, some 100km south of the capital.
A statement by the committee declared that the meeting came in the wake of deliberations with the bishops of the parishes in which the attacks took place. This, the statement said, drove the committee to take a decision to visit Minya and Beni Sweif during the next few days and hold meetings with the bishops there to look into possible solutions with all the parties concerned. The aim is to put an end to incidents which represent serious violations of citizenship rights. The situation, according to the statement, must be swiftly addressed in context of a national framework that accords with State dignity and authority, the rule of law, and efforts to thwart attempts to create a rift between Egyptian Christians and Muslims. It must be realised, the statement expressed, that Egypt is in dire need of national unity and solidarity of all sectors of the Egyptian community to overcome the crises it is mired in and to realise the aspiration of an “Egypt for all Egyptians”.
Also on Monday 25 July, Pope Tawadros II met a delegation of MPs at the papal headquarters at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta, participated in the meeting.
The Pope began by confirming that Egypt is an old nation whose people carry a matchless stamp of Egyptian, Christian, and Islamic traits. “This unique image of Egypt,” Pope Tawadros said, “is now being defaced, and it is our responsibility before future generations, before the entire world, before the history of humanity and before God, to preserve it.” He talked of Egypt during Pharaonic times, the Christian era which was introduced to Egypt at the hands of St Mark who was later martyred in Alexandria in AD68, and the Islamic era which came with the Arab conquest in 640. “Egypt’s Christians,” he said, “went through hard times in which they were victims of violence and injustice, but also through good times. Yet the unique Egyptian identity remained intact. Now it seems under assault.”
“Attacks against Copts have escalated since 2013,” Pope Tawadros said.
That year the Egyptian people, backed by the military, rid Egypt of the Islamist regime which came to power in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. Despite the fact that Copts in their entirety form no more than 10 – 15 per cent of Egypt’s population, Islamists saw them as key accomplices in the 33-million-strong revolution of 30 June 2013 that brought about the downfall of the Islamist regime. They have since made Copts pay the price. Most notorious among the Islamist violence against Copts was the series of attacks that took place nationwide on 14 August 2013, and which left four Copts dead, scores injured, and some 100 churches, Christian institutions, and Coptic homes, property, and businesses looted and burned. [http://en.wataninet.com/egypt-arab-spring/egypt-post-30-june/avalanche-of-hate/1292/]
“I am a normally patient, forbearing man,” Pope Tawadros said, “But the post-2013 attacks against Copts carry a warning we need to heed. Minya alone was the scene of some 37 attacks against Copts during these three years, meaning on the average an attack every month. These attacks were ferocious and caused immeasurable pain. They were more often than not triggered by groups that incite Muslims and mobilise them in the wake of Friday noon prayers. The usual pretext was that the Copts were building or converting a house into a church, which in itself is no pretext for attack, yet the mob set off to burn that building. These were no mere crimes, they were premeditated attacks.”
The Pope said that unless we call things by their name we cannot even start addressing them. “Judge for yourselves,” Pope Tawadros said, “When the Copts were viciously attacked on 14 August 2013 they did not utter a complaint. They realised their pain was being used to split and damage Egypt; they bore it with fortitude, offering their nation the ultimate sacrifice.
“Today,” the Pope said, “The attacks against Copts are on a smaller scale than that, but Coptic anger at the unjustified attacks has gained scary proportions. I plead with you as lawmakers, with all love and faithfulness, to confront the injustice.”
Anba Pola pointed to the lamentable fact that in all these attacks, not one culprit was brought to justice. Instead, the Coptic victims were threatened and coerced into ‘conciliating’ with their attackers through traditional out-of-court settlements sponsored by the local Muslim elders, politicians and security officials. The conciliation terms were invariably oppressive and unjust to the Copts, and forced them to relinquish their legal rights.
Draft law for building churches
Given that the attacks are in their majority under the pretext of building a church, it was natural that the topic of the draft law for building churches should come up. The Pope was very straightforward when he addressed the MPs with: “We will not accept that any body or authority should hold sway over the building of churches. The matter has so far been governed by an outdated edict that goes back to the Ottoman Empire.” He demanded that the new law should be transparently discussed. “Do not put me in the position where I will have to reject the law,” he said.
The situation of the Copts at home caused an outcry by Copts in the Diaspora; US Copts have been calling for demonstrations in front of the White House to bring to light the plight of Christians in Egypt. This in turn caused an outcry at home that Diaspora Copts were inciting the international community against Egypt and that Pope Tawadros should act to stop them. During the recent meeting with the MPs, the matter was brought up, and the Pope’s reply was a heated: “The Copts in the Diaspora have been strongly supportive of Egypt. I did ask them, though, that they would hold no demonstrations but I know many will not listen.”
MP Osama al-Abd, head of parliament’s Religious Committee, told Pope Tawadros that the MPs had come to listen to his wisdom and viewpoint on the attacks against the Copts. “Egyptians must remain one national fabric as they have always been,” Mr Abd said. “We will not stand with our hands tied before those who incite sedition from inside or outside Egypt. We also intend to see to it that the culprits who attack the Copts are brought to justice.”
Law applies to all
MP Saad al-Gammal, head of the Support Egypt bloc in parliament, reminded those present of the demand by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that Islamic religious address, which he described as a pillar in thwarting sedition, should be reformed.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on Thursday 21 July commented on the recent wave of attacks against the Copts in Egypt by saying that he trusted Egyptians would be vigilant to attempts to divide the nation. “In this motherland,” he said, “there is no Muslim or Christian, only Egyptians who are all one before the law in rights and duties.” He said Egypt is a country where the rule of law prevails; “The law applies to all,” he said, “starting with the president of the republic. No one should ever doubt this.”
Judging from comments on social media, however, many Copts were not so sure. “Why then do the attackers of Copts run free?” was a common remark.
Pope’s evening of prayer
Responding to the severe Coptic pain at the recent wave of violence, Pope Tawadros II gave up his weekly Wednesday sermon to hold instead an evening of prayer at the 4th-century Muallaqqa, literally ‘Hanging’ Church in Old Cairo. The church earned its nickname for being built over a gatehouse of the 2nd-century Roman Babylon Fort, and was the seat of Coptic popes from the 7th to the 13th century.
Copts could not fail to see the symbolism carried in the choice of site. The Hanging church had actually been chosen well beforehand to host the Pope’s Wednesday 20 July sermon, but that it should host the prayer evening was regarded as highly auspicious. The church, which is consecrated in the name of the Holy Virgin, stood witness to centuries of persecution against the Copts, and was also the site where many miracles were worked.
Pope Tawadros said he was closely following up on the recent attacks against the Copts, and was in contact with Egypt’s top officials on the matter. He said he had been in talks with the Prime Minister the day before.
“Today, we hold prayers for the dead and injured; and for us to regain our authentic Egyptian spirit.”
The service lasted for a full two hours during which Pope and congregation were one in prayer. “Lord, save our land,” Pope Tawadros prayed. “Forgive whoever hurt us in villages or towns in the length and breadth of Egypt.” He prayed for the dead, the injured, those who lost loved ones; also for those who lost property or belongings, and for the attackers and offenders, that “the Lord should help us love them”. He prayed for the forgiveness of all sins, lifting of all suffering, and for the Lord’s peace and love to finally prevail.
27 July 2016